Women in Leadership panelists: DeVinney, Hardwrick, Howard, Nolan, Petras, Sorgen and Sweet

Women in Leadership

An all-female panel from the recent HEALTHTAC event in Scottsdale, Arizona, discussed what it means to be a female executive in senior living. It was aptly entitled “Women in Leadership.”

The moderator—Margaret DeVinney, director of senior living sales at Enseo, Inc.—began the conversation with this question: “How is being too nice or too b*tchy been part of your woman leadership role?”

It involves a delicate balance. “If I’m too nice, I get taken advantage of and walked all over; if I’m too b*tchy or too bossy, I’m considered selfish, inhumane and I don’t take other people’s feelings into consideration,” said Michelle Howard, owner of Southern Hospitality Home, which is a boutique senior living community in Austin, Texas. “It comes down to balancing respect with likeability.”

Tineka Hardwrick, COO at Summit Vista, agreed. “Men can say the exact same thing that we say as women in leadership and it’s leadership; a woman says it and it becomes aggressive/b*tchy,” said, Hardwrick, whose company is in Salt Lake City, Utah. “That’s a big challenge for us to try to navigate that and lean in on balancing it.”

It could depend on who you’re speaking to. “Knowing your audience is critical,” said Jennifer Nolan, principal of ProcurePros, which is in Tennessee. “For some, a tone of being a bit more direct could be perceived as a bit b*tchy.”

One panelist stressed that it’s about awareness.

“While we have always had to be mindful and aware of the EQ in the room—and do it in heels, let’s be honest—we have to have the men at the table to have the conversations, too,” said Severine Petras, CEO and co-founder of Priority Life Care, which is in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Because while we have to model this behavior of the balance between too b*tchy and too nice, we need the men in leadership to understand to not be saying those age-old things.”

Hardwrick presented the room with a challenge. “Before you say that a woman is too soft, or too aggressive or b*tchy—take a step back,” she said. “Is she doing her job? Is she doing it right?…Ok, she’s a leader; she’s not being b*tchy or aggressive.”

We also need to raise awareness about our biases, pointed out Amy Sweet, CEO of Tapestry Senior Living, which is based in Austin, Texas. She noted that both men and women have these biases around how we expect women to lead versus how we expect men to lead.

This bias has affected her access to funding. “98% of financing is still controlled by men…Getting my first loan for my first business—even $250,000, like getting a line of credit—no one wanted to give me any money,” Sweet said. “I found that men can go in and get the exact same line of credit…They can get two, three, four, even 10 times the amount—no balance sheet difference. Actually, mine was much better.”

Hardwrick also faced bias, but for different reasons. “I spent my executive years in Utah as a minority woman not of the dominant faith…For many years, I was the only woman with a seat at the table,” she said. “I felt like I always had to do double time/extra/more than the person next to me, and [I] never felt like I fit in.”

Fitting in and belonging are so important. Shaleen Sorgen, senior regional director of operations at Century Park Associates, noted that women tend to be insecure when applying to higher-level positions—especially when the C-Suite is male-dominated.

“[I had to] recognize that I had a place at the table, no matter what; female or male,” said Sorgen, whose company is in Cleveland, Tennessee. “Don’t be afraid to look at your personal insecurities and know your knowledge base, experience [and] worth.”

Knowing all of those are key, especially if/when you come face-to-face with condescending comments—like Petras has. And she’s heard it all:

  • “Oh, honey, that’s cute; you’re the CEO.”
  • “So it’s a family Your dad started the company?” (No, but he did work for them for a bit.)
  • “So you started as a nurse, right?” (No, she was a banker before.)

“I just try to stay down that professional lane: this is what I do, this is who I am and this is how we started,” Petras concluded. “I’m not from the south, but I try to end it with ‘Bless your heart!’”

Howard’s biggest struggle has been finding that work-life balance.

“I will never forget fighting an unemployment case while in active labor in the hospital with my first [kid], or almost having my second in the car because I needed to finish payroll,” she said. “As a small business owner, you truly never have a day off…Ultimately, all of my residents’ lives are in my hands, so this affects my ability to be present and in the moment when I’m with my kids. And [there’s] a feeling of guilt when I’m not with them because of work.”

How has she dealt with this? “I have an amazing husband that is a very hands-on dad,” Howard said. “[And I] hired the right executive director and retained an incredible team that allows me to spend more time with my family.”

It’s important to have a good team behind you.

“I’ve made it a mission for myself to align myself with companies that value women in leadership,” said Sorgen, whose company has a female CEO. “She’s very inspiring for all of us…I feel like my voice matters.”

Her advice to other women: “If you’re aligned with a company that doesn’t see through that same lens, there’s many senior operators out there today that are putting a strong emphasis on growing their women leadership roles and really investing in what it means to be a woman leader,” Sorgen said.

You can also seek—and provide—mentorship and help to other women. “I’ve been intentional about looking for mentors for myself, but also to be a mentor to others,” Nolan said. “[It’s about] looking at other women who aren’t afraid to be transparent, bold and demonstrate the amount of leadership they have and what they do; it continues to empower me.”

Sweet tries to nominate women for leadership roles and programs. “Women are, a lot of times, juggling their family life and their career; they’re not getting out there and doing a lot of the personal growth and business growth,” she said. “A lot of them don’t even know these opportunities exist.”

The bottom line? “Build women up,” Hardwrick said. “Take their hand, pull them up and bring them with you.”

Howard’s had a lot of women approach her over the years to ask for guidance. “I’m always willing to help and support them in any way I can,” she said. “By being kind, empathetic, honest, knowledgeable, experienced and real, I hope we’ll uplift—and continue to uplift—other women into leadership.”

Ploughing Past Pilot Purgatory panelists: Thomas, Bultema, Burke, Mullin and Skaff

Ploughing Past Pilot Purgatory

The recent HEALTHTAC event, which took place in Scottsdale, Arizona, hosted a panel focusing on pilots—specifically, how to not get stuck in “pilot purgatory.” In fact, the panel was entitled “Ploughing Past Pilot Purgatory,” and the panelists spoke about their tips and tricks for vetting and selecting pilots to participate in.

The panel began with the moderator—Sarah Thomas, CEO of Delight by Design, which is a boutique consulting firm—explaining the crux of the issue. “The biggest problem we have is finding the right match…[then] starting a pilot and getting stuck in pilot purgatory—never making that go/no-go decision,” Thomas said. “My philosophy is always looking at how to scale fast or fail fast.”

Michael Skaff, CIO of San Francisco-based Jewish Senior Living Group, pointed out that one challenge is that the senior living industry is changing. “We’re in an industry that’s in the process of changing and evolving—at an accelerating rate,” he said. “The challenge that provides to companies that want to present us with a new solution, is how far ahead their solution may be from where we are at present. There’s naturally some dissonance there.”

Paul Mullin, principal and chief investment officer at Lake Oswego, Oregon-based Flatiron Development Group, meanwhile, urged suppliers to partner with third-party companies—and choose the right ones.

“Find the right partners that will embrace what you’re doing…Find those people that get it,” he said. “That’s kind of our mantra with real estate: Get to know quickly, find the people that get it and work closely with them to build your brand.”

Mullin also suggested reaching out to colleges and universities, asserting that it will benefit both sides.

“If you’ve got a third-party independent partner behind what you do, that’s better advertising to me than all the pitches or all the standard ROI table stakes that you might throw at people…And these universities want to partner with you; they need this type of research,” Mullin said. “We went to USC Gerontology and we talked to them about engineering and lighting—and they proved that lighting does make a big difference for people with dementia before [we] rolled out tunable LED into our communities.”

The panelists also discussed the need for senior living operators to look at their entire technology platform.

Patrick Bultema, president and CEO of Eden Alternative, which is based in Rochester, New York, explained that there’s a lack of defined and standardized technology product categories.

“That calls for a more complete solution approach; shopping for one product in isolation may just create all kinds of integration or redundancy problems with other products,” Bultema continued. “What’s your whole tech stack look like and how do those pieces go together?”

You also want to make sure your senior living company can support the solution. “We need to be thinking about infrastructure,” said Camille Burke, VP and chief development officer of Essex Communities, which is headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska.

“And make sure…we’re at a maturity level that we’re able to both manage the solution and manage the beneficial outcomes that we’re trying to achieve,” Skaff said. “If it’s something that has great potential but we’re not ready to meet that potential where it can be, there’s no sense in us going down that road—it’s going to be a waste of our time.”

Additionally, the executives urged communities to figure out what their end goal is with the pilot.

“Have a vision for what you want and what will get you there. You may not know what will get you there initially—and that may be part of what you’re hoping for from the pilot—but understand where you’re trying to get to and how the pilot contributes to that arc,” Skaff said. “Understand…what are you trying to achieve? Don’t just say, ‘Let’s just put a point solution in place because this looks like it might do something,’” said Skaff.

And after you’ve figured out what you’re trying to achieve, the next step is figuring out how to measure it. “You’ll never really know what you’re doing if you can’t measure it, and it’s much more likely to go on for an indefinite period of time if you don’t have a beginning and end—and know what that end looks like,” Skaff said. “A pilot needs to have a beginning and end—and that end needs to be transformative in some way/do something differently.”

Bultema concurred. “Be very explicit and clear about what are the outcomes and measures?” he said. “Part of the challenge of ending up in pilot purgatory is if you’re ill-defined on what success looks like.”

And use your team to help evaluate these pilots. Burke said she used to go to conferences and return to her communities with an inundating “umpteen-million technology solutions.”

“I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a little bit smarter, a little bit wiser and actually allow them [the executives] to participate…in those decisions, so that they don’t have to feel like I’m going to come back with all of these technology solutions for them to have to inhale,” Burke continued. “I [also] really enjoy having focus groups come together and putting a group of professionals together that then will take it to the next level of vetting technology.”

As for the boots-on-the-ground caregivers, you especially want to keep them in mind when it comes to the mission of the pilot.

“The message behind it is important,” Thomas said. “I’ve had many failed pilots because they’re often pushed down from the top…and there’s no description of why to the end user. If a caregiver is hearing that you’re going to deploy a technology to help reduce rehospitalizations and the overall cost burden, they don’t care. But if it’s about honoring someone’s end of life wishes and maintaining the integrity of someone’s voice when they can’t speak for themselves, now you’ve got them bought in and they’re interested in using that technology.”

Labor and Staffing panelists: Bonner, Cook, Kirtland, Longfellow and Somani

Labor and Staffing: Recruiting and Retaining Talent

The pandemic and Great Resignation had—and continue to have—effects on the senior living industry. During our recent HEALTHTAC event in Scottsdale, Arizona, there was a panel entitled “Labor and Staffing: The Importance of Recruiting and Retaining Talent.” The industry experts who provided their insight on that panel spoke to their communities’ staffing strategies.

“When 2020 March rolled around and things began to devolve, we began to see the role that our sales directors could play in recruitment. They weren’t doing as many tours and they weren’t as busy with their sales work, so we put them to work recruiting,” said Cindy Longfellow, vice president of business development, sales and marketing at Juniper Communities, which is based in Bloomfield, New Jersey. “We also put together an applicant tracking system that we use, not unlike we use a CRM on the sales side.”

Kirt Kirtland, CFO of the Lantern Group, noticed that along with getting applicants that have not yet worked in the industry, people that used to work in senior living are coming back. The Lantern Group is based in northeast Ohio, and it has three communities.

“We’re actually seeing people who had gotten out of the industry, coming back into the industry,” he explained. “We’re rehiring the people that we’ve already known—and they’re coming to us, versus us trying to find them.”

However, the recruitment process has still been a struggle for many communities.

“Over the last two years, we have tried a lot of things,” said Bryan Cook, co-founder and president of Legacy Senior Living, which is based in Cleveland, Tennessee. “Everything that we have done historically…is on the table, evaluated and may get thrown off the table.”

One strategy he’s employed has been showing applicants their potential for advancement.

“Their big question is, ‘What’s in it for me?’” said Cook. “[We show them that] if you’re a caregiver, you can be the lead caregiver, you can grow to be a med tech or you can go into the nursing program.”

A positive company culture can also be a strong selling point. “What we recognized is, we weren’t selling our culture to potential associates and team members in the same way that we were selling our culture to our prospective residents and families,” Longfellow said. “That’s really been the biggest thing for us—think about recruitment and retention in the same way we think about marketing and customer engagement.”

When it comes to retention, it’s important to figure out and address the root cause.

“There’s all these different things around burnout, pay,” began Moe Somani, senior vice president of client growth and strategy at Canada-based BookJane, which is an automated system to help staff take on more shifts. “All those things come into play, but what’s really the root cause that you have around retention issues, and how do you fix that problem quickly?”

The number one thing that his company sees is staff flexibility. “For example, you have a schedule—40 hours, Monday to Friday—but some people just can’t work that way anymore,” Somani said. “So how do you adapt that schedule, still get them the 40 hours and still get what you need as a facility to ensure that those shifts are being filled? Technology, innovation and those type of things can help do that, but being [flexible and] adapting to the staff will reduce your retention issues that you have right now.”

Longfellow agreed that flexibility is key. “In our aging C-Suite of seven, only two of us…are under 60, and we had our first resignation off of our team in June of this year,” she said. “Almost concurrent with that, we had the first resignations of two of our long-term executive directors.”

She added that those employees have accumulated so much knowledge during their tenure that will now be lost. “They may no longer want to work for Juniper (or anywhere) full-time, but can we capitalize on their knowledge and expertise and offer them projects or part-time?” Longfellow said. “Think about how you can capitalize on talent that wants to leave…Maybe we can create a balance of flexibility and stability—even for those younger associates—to keep them with us longer.”

For Reid Bonner, president of Dallas-based Senior By Design—a company that creates, builds and remodels communities—the key to keeping staff has to do with culture. “We try our very best to really connect with our staff,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to create this fun, exciting place.”

For example, after the team completes an installation, he takes them out to dinner. During the meal, they go around and have everyone talk about how their team members positively impacted them during the project.

“They get to hear their value to their teammates, the other teammates are hearing that as well, and that constant buildup of their gifts and talents is heard,” Bonner said. “We’ve created a space that is fun, heard and seen.”

Cook uses the motto ‘’ready-aim-fire” when it comes to retention—but slightly modified. “I say ready-fire-aim, and then fire again, and then aim again,” he said.

He explained this by comparing it to a song he heard on Sesame Street, which he watches with his young granddaughter. “There’s a song on there [called] I Wonder, What If, Let’s Try,” Cook said. “That’s what we’re doing: I wonder if we can do this, let’s try and then let’s evaluate whether it works.”

However, whatever your company’s recruitment and retention difficulties may be, Cook stressed this: “There are no silver bullets to this challenge,” he said. “A lot of times in our corporate offices, we come out with some edict that we think’s going to work globally—and I haven’t found that it works. Each market is different; play to the strengths and the leadership in your communities, and then build your plan to recruit [and] retain toward those strengths—and hopefully you have some success.”

Trailblazers panelists: Chisman, Marvin, Paterno, Pickhardt and Taylor-Roberts

Trailblazers: The Importance of Supporting New Endeavors

Last month, a handful of senior living panelists discussed innovation—specifically, why it’s critical and how they’re approaching it in their own communities. The panel, entitled “Trailblazers: Sharing the Importance, Benefits and Value of Supporting New Endeavors,” was part of a recent HEALTHTAC event, which took place at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Scottsdale, Arizona.

A common thread that was woven throughout the panel was ensuring that the endeavor was going to be beneficial to the residents.

“Is it creating value for our residents?” asked Cole Marvin, executive director at Friendship Village Tempe, which is located in Tempe, Arizona. “They’re the folks that we’re serving.”

His community is right next to Arizona State University (ASU), so they have a lot of residents that are retired ASU professors. “You have people that are life-long learners, they’re inquisitive and they want to learn more,” Marvin explained. “So when we get these studies that come our way and opportunities to participate, we pull that group together, talk about it and see if there’s interest. And if there’s interest, then it makes sense [to participate]—it’s going to create value for them.”

And creating value is so important. “If you’re not creating value and connecting the dots—so that they [residents] can see what that value is going to look like—it’s hard [for them] to invest the time, because time is so precious and so limited,” Marvin added.

Value can also come from looking at the activities that residents are participating in. “The struggle, especially through COVID, was how do we ensure residents aren’t just existing, but thriving?” asked Traci Taylor-Roberts, president of Sodalis Senior Living, which is based in San Marcos, Texas. “You have a new generation of older people moving in that don’t always want to quilt, do pretty nails, go to church or play bingo.”

So the company came up with an idea. “We looked heavily at replacing traditional life engagement activities with virtual reality experiences,” said Taylor-Roberts. “And working with Stanford [University], we’re actually showing that memory care people can progress and thrive through those experiences, no matter what their acuity is.”

Another way to decide which endeavors might benefit residents is to take the guesswork out of it.

“People [seniors] in our industry expect good care and good customer service; what they want is advancement in quality of life,” said Sonya Paterno, regional director of sales and marketing at LivGenerations Senior Living, which is located in Scottsdale, Arizona.

And, after some trialing with her team, it dawned on her. “Why don’t we ask the people what it is that they want?” Paterno said. “That question has really proven to assist us in our endeavors, versus [brainstorming] incredible ideas that are just throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

It’s also important to get staff members’ input and buy-in for the trials; after all, they’ll be the ones implementing it with the residents.

“They’ve got to see the value of how it applies to them and why they want to do it,” Taylor-Roberts said. “For virtual reality, we offered the experience to our staff members and our residents. So everybody was going to Yellowstone, skydiving and shark fishing. We wanted to do that to bridge the gap between the generations, where it gave our younger staff members something to talk about with our older people.”

And part of getting staff members on board might involve calling upon data to support your changes.

“As a leader, I see my role as mentoring the next group of leaders,” said Bill Pickhardt, COO of John Knox Village of Florida, Inc., which is based out of Pompano Beach, Florida. “And if I leave a legacy, that is to change the face of aging. The only way we’re going to be able to do that is to get people comfortable with change. And in order for people to be comfortable with change, they have to see empirical data so that they have something more than an antidotal comment to say, ‘I believe this; I’m willing to give it a try.’”

For Marvin, a lot of the endeavors that his community trials are technology-related. “The best decision I ever made was firing myself from making technology decisions,” he said. “I was interested in everything, and sometimes that’s not the best approach. So we hired a true chief technology officer.”

But that’s just not possible for some senior living companies. As the moderator, Verna Chisman—president of Allure Wellness Management Services, which is based out of Dublin, Ohio—pointed out, many not-for-profit senior living organizations might have financial-related obstacles.

“Be open to reallocating funds,” Pickhardt suggested. “There’s many technology providers…[with] state-of-the-art technology, and yet many of us that operate communities have the old pull-cord system—and they’re very expensive. You could reallocate dollars from that old pull-cord system to a new technology that would identify falls, movement, activity and sleep.”

As the panel wrapped up, Chisman asked each of the panelists for their advice to operators who might be considering participating in a pilot/study/product launch.

“A lot of the pilots and things that we do have to do [with]—and are surrounded by—wellness,” Paterno said. She explained that her company is all about wellness.

Marvin had a couple suggestions. “The key is whatever you’re going to do, be prepared to support it…If we can’t support it, we’re not going to do it,” he said. “And really focus on the fundamentals and the foundation…We’re putting in fiber optics now so that we’re able to support the next level of technology. I view that as a foundational thing—we have to make sure our network is solid.”

And lastly, all of the panelists stressed the importance of innovation. “I see innovation…[as] the cornerstone of success,” Paterno said. “If you want to be great, you have to innovate.”

Pickhardt agreed. “We need to stay focused on being innovative; we need to stay focused on jumping the market. Because the reality is, if we’re slow at doing that, everybody is going to pass us,” he said. “Don’t overthink it; dip your toes in the water and get started. It’s much easier once you commit to getting started.”

Chef Greg Strickland pouring some fresh beer for a resident to enjoy

Vi at Highlands Ranch’s Microbrewery

It all started with an herb garden—and a chef’s hobby.

Greg Strickland headshot

Greg Strickland, executive chef of Vi at Highlands Ranch

Back in 2015/2016, the team at Vi at Highlands Ranch (located in Highlands Ranch, Colorado) started an herb garden. “I liked doing it—I’m a big fan of gardening—and the residents really enjoyed it,” said Greg Strickland, executive chef of Vi at Highlands Ranch, which is one of Vi’s 10 senior living communities.

Once the garden was in place, the team started thinking about pollinators, which led to them getting a hive of bees in 2018/2019—which has since grown into seven hives. And the residents have really become invested in the bees.

“The residents have fully embraced it; they really love it,” Strickland said. “The resident response has been awesome.”

Jars of the honey produced by the bees in the community

The community sold some of their bees’ honey at a local farmers’ market

Naturally, having seven beehives has produced a lot of fresh honey. “It tastes really, really good! I think it’s the best honey in Colorado—but maybe that’s my own opinion,” Strickland joked. “The residents really enjoy it.”

At the same time, Strickland had been talking with a resident about another interest of his. “One of my personal hobbies is brewing; I’ve been home-brewing for a while. There was a resident who was of German descent and he really liked talking to me about beer,” Strickland said. “He was really encouraging me to do it here at work.”

So Strickland started making test batches in Vi’s kitchen. And right before the pandemic hit, he was starting to make some progress—just on a really small scale. So during the pandemic, he decided to take his project to the next level; he bought some equipment and put together a microbrewery (with the help of the maintenance team).

“Once we got the brewing thing going…it just seemed natural for the honey to be an ingredient,” Strickland said. “We have all this great honey [and] we have beer; let’s put it together…So [for] our very first batch, we decided to do a honey wheat beer—and it came out really nice. I’ll still say that I’m a better chef than I am [a] brewer, but it’s getting there!”

And the residents have been really understanding; they just love that they can taste the honey that came from the community’s bees.

Angela Owens headshot

Angela Owens, lifestyle director at Vi at Highlands Ranch

“Everything tastes much better when you make it at home and you have a part in it,” noted Angela Owens, lifestyle director at Vi at Highlands Ranch.

That being said, there’s not much that the residents can do when it comes to the beer.

“Honestly, brewing is a lot of just sitting around and watching a pot…[although] they’re able to sample the brew through the process if they want,” Owens said. “Residents typically talk about the ingredients and the direction they want to take it.”

Strickland agreed, noting that the residents want to be able to provide their input and know what’s going on with the beer. “For the very first beer that we made, we had a couple of residents just poke [their heads] in; they were curious more than anything else,” Strickland said. “But for the second one, we had about a dozen people show up—and most of them stayed through the entire process.”

However, the residents were in charge of naming the honey wheat beer. “We had a brew-naming contest,” Owens said. “We asked residents what they would like to name it, and that’s how we came up with ‘Bees Knees’.”

Owens also noted that the excitement around the microbrewery might not all be about the beer itself. “It’s more the social aspect: It’s fun to talk about, it’s fun to be involved in [and] it’s fun to tell their friends and family about,” she said. “The beer is great, for sure, but the experience is really what I think they like…It’s the experience of being together with other residents and having common interests.”

A lot of the staff are excited about the microbrewery, too. “The residents get excited, [and then] we feed off of their excitement,” Owens said. “It gives us all some common ground to talk about in a very positive way.”

And that’s her favorite part of the microbrewery. “Our residents are amazing people,” Owens said. “They have amazing lives and amazing stories, and it’s most fun and gratifying for us that we are a part of their story—of their life. It’s something that they’ll remember.”

Strickland’s favorite part is that his hard work has seemed to pay off. “The best part is seeing how much enthusiasm comes out of something that you put extra work into,” he said. “The residents have been so enthusiastic and welcoming, and they really like it. For me, that’s just gratifying.”

And he’s put a lot of time and effort into the microbrewery. “It takes a lot of work. Brew day is an entire day—six or eight hours,” Strickland said. “Angela and I still have our regular jobs to do…I’m still the chef; we still have other things going on.”

So it’s a challenge—but one that he embraces. “We enjoy the challenge here, but it’s definitely a challenge,” Strickland said. “We want to be the best and we want our residents to be treated the best, so these are the things we have to do.”

As for the future of the microbrewery?

“We want this to get as big as the residents want it to be,” Strickland said. “Just having good, fresh beer on tap is a lot of fun!”

Additionally, he (and the residents) would love to get the beer to a point where they could sell it.

“If this goes really well and we continue to enjoy it, maybe we could take it outside, have the public enjoy this and have the money go towards a good cause,” Strickland said. He noted that the proceeds could be donated to a relevant cause, like funding research for a cure for Alzheimer’s.

“I know the residents would be very proud of that—and I would be, too,” Strickland said.

Residents doing yoga outside with a yoga instructor

Mather Institute’s New Wellness Model: Autonomy, Achievement and Affiliation

Wellness in senior living can be defined in several different ways. So the Mather Institute—the research arm of Mather—set out to develop a new model to explain the components of wellness more clearly, and how they all work together. They refer to it as the person-centric wellness model.

Cate O'Brien headshot

Cate O’Brien, vice president and director of the Mather Institute

Mather has three communities in Illinois and Arizona, as well as one currently in progress in Virginia. The Mather Institute was founded in 1999 with the goal of improving aging services. “[It] serves as an innovation incubator, and provides information and resources that support the senior living industry in serving older adults,” said Cate O’Brien, vice president and director of the Mather Institute.

The first step of developing the new model was to research what was already out there. “The process began with a thorough review of well-established models of psychological well-being and quality of life,” said O’Brien. “In addition, we reviewed research in positive aging to identify factors that could be incorporated into a new model.”

In the end, the company came up with three main components for the new model: autonomy, achievement and affiliation.

“Autonomy is the need to make choices for oneself and to have a sense of control or ownership of one’s behaviors,” said O’Brien.

However, it’s not the same as independence. “With autonomy, people can rely on support from others while making their own decisions,” she emphasized.

O’Brien continued on to explain the other two drivers. “Achievement is the need to demonstrate competence and mastery over one’s environment. It’s the sense that one is learning and developing, and that one’s actions are leading to desired outcomes,” she said. “Connection [affiliation] is the need to have close relationships and meaningful interactions with others. It includes receiving support as well as providing support to others.”

O’Brien said that people will likely draw more benefits from a wellness program that takes all three into account. “It’s of their own choosing (autonomy), they feel like they can succeed and reach their goals (achievement) and their efforts are encouraged by others (affiliation),” she summarized.

A concentric circle diagram of Mather's person-centric wellness model

A diagram of Mather Institute’s person-centric wellness model

The new model also takes three levels into account: individual, community and society. “Each [person] has many different influences on their experience of wellness,” O’Brien said. “Wellness does not happen in a vacuum.”

She then explained each of the levels. “Individual factors can influence an individual’s wellness—from beliefs, knowledge and values, to personality, demographic characteristics and one’s life history,” O’Brien said. “Community-level factors can also impact people’s wellness-related decisions. These include programs and services offered by senior living communities to support resident and employee wellness, as well as the built environment in which people live.”

And lastly, society-level factors. This includes cultural beliefs, regional differences and more. “For example, some religious communities may have strong traditions of service to others, which affects individual wellness as well as that of the larger group,” O’Brien explained.

And by incorporating all three factors, the new model helps employees better assist their residents. “Staff may more fully support an individual’s aspirations and help them identify and address any challenges to achieving their goals,” O’Brien said.

William Myers headshot

William Myers, assistant vice president of wellness strategies at Mather

However, the responsibility of this new model of wellness doesn’t just fall on the caregivers. “We see wellness as everyone’s responsibility—hence residents and employees alike being wellness citizens charged with evolving and strengthening the community’s wellness culture,” said William Myers, assistant vice president of wellness strategies. “We seek to create an environment in which residents feel comfortable sharing their needs and wants, and collaborating to contribute to a culture of wellness.”

They’ve held resident and staff wellness forums; residents participate in a wellness coaching program; and they had staff who works in resident services attend a new orientation and educational workshops, receive training on how to deliver this new program and learn about new communication standards and data-related tools.

Myers highlighted the workshops specifically. They included a mix of staff from different departments, and the goal was to learn “how to collaborate purposefully and how to center wellness in their community to cultivate a culture of wellness through wellness citizenship,” he said.

For any other companies looking to employ the new model in their communities, Myers advised reviewing all aspects of the community that can impact a resident’s wellness.

“Programs, services, places and spaces should be designed and aligned with the person-centric wellness model,” Myers said. “Create and align programs, services and offerings that uphold and offer fulfillment in one or more areas of autonomy, affiliation and achievement.”

Additionally, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Be purposeful and authentic: “[It should be] more than words on a page, and designed with the intention of positively impacting life in our communities,” Myers said.
  • Be contextual and adaptable: “[Be] responsive to the local cultural and environmental landscape to provide wellness offerings that are relevant to each unique community culture,” Myers explained. “[Be] adaptable and inclusive to support wellness across the life plan community continuum and among diverse team members.”
  • Be immersive and dynamic: “Wellness is…activated in the spaces in between and activities within,” Myers said. “The key is to adapt and continue to evolve over time and accelerate the wellbeing of community occupants.”

And the last thing is to have a healthy mix of the old and the new, according to Myers. “[Be] informed by both traditional wellness practices and cutting-edge wellness trends,” he said.

leadingage 1

LeadingAge Looks to a Future of Continued Legislative Advocacy, Workforce Improvements

LeadingAge is signaling a new era for the aging services sector. The organization returned to an entirely in-person annual conference and expo in October and in January, National President and CEO of Volunteers of America Mike King will begin his two-year term as LeadingAge’s Board Chair. King has already stated that he will work to advance the mission as well as LeadingAge’s Strategic Plan 2021-2023. With Biden’s scaled down Build Back Better Act still on the table (at press time), LeadingAge could soon enjoy some legislative wins.

Susan Donley

But as LeadingAge’s Susan Donley, senior vice president of communications and marketing, shared with Senior Living News, potential legislative victories won’t stop the organization from continuing to advocate on behalf of its members and older adults. Read on to learn more about what 2022 holds in store for LeadingAge.

LeadingAge’s Policy Vision was published in August. Since then, LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan has praised President Biden’s “budget reconciliation framework as an ‘historic step.’” If this budget passes, how will that change the Policy Vision?

One piece of legislation, no matter how important and frankly, how large in scale, can’t solve all the issues. The reality is that our country’s population is aging and the need for aging services will only continue to grow. Our country has not invested sufficiently in the care and services that older adults have needed for decades. So there’s no quick fix to this scale of need. We will continue to fight with our policy team, our advocates and our membership for specific policy changes and increased investment, even that which is already included in the Build Back Better Act, like affordable housing for older adults and more investment in our sector’s workforce. We’ll keep fighting no matter how great this bill ends up being.

Our Policy Vision is really made to layout a bold and comprehensive vision for the future. It lays out a vision for a future where older adults have equitable choice for the care that they need and for their preferences, a clear point of entry and navigation as their needs and preferences change. The also extends to the sector’s workforce. But all of this needs to be grounded in viable financial planning. So changes in our government financing systems are fundamental to the kinds of changes that this vision would require.

While we make progress and intend to continue doing so with this current bill and with future legislators, our vision is bigger and bolder and we will continue to work towards achieving that larger framework. The programs and initiatives funded in the Build Back Better Act will make progress toward the vision that we’ve laid out in our paper. But we will continue to have different asks and we will work with different committees and allies on Capitol Hill to develop different kinds of legislation. Build Back Better supports that overarching direction.

For example, we’re asking for significant investment in affordable housing for older adults in the Build Back Better legislative package. Our allies on the Hill are working hard to explain the level of funding needed and why in order to support our vision of how a successful aging services sector can work. We know older adults need safe and appropriate housing so they can get the care and services that they need. Build Back Better has incremental steps toward our vision. Some of our asks may shift as others are met, but all the steps in our vision work together as far as achieving a successful aging services sector.

Coronavirus Response Resources are still a feature on LeadingAge.com. Do you expect they will be a permanent fixture on the site?

As an association, we will continue to provide Coronavirus resources for our members as long as they need them. As long as Covid is part of our members’ lives, we will offer Covid support to them. Even as cases are declining and we’re moving in a great direction, aging services providers still have Covid-related needs, like vaccine and booster clinics, PPE and testing. So we’re keeping all of that top of mind and we’re bringing our members information as there are changes to the rules, regulations and guidance regarding Covid so that they can take advantage of what we can offer. For example, we’re working with Clorox to offer members grands for funding need for vaccine clinics, both Covid and the flu. We’re keeping our members’ emerging and changing Covid needs at the front of our services for members. But we’re also integrating that into the work that we always do.

As LeadingAge’s new Board Chair, how will Mike King drive the future of the organization over the next two years?

We’ve been very fortunate to have a strong and engaged board of directors and Mike will bring his own unique approach to his leadership just as our current Board Chair Carol Silver Elliott has done. We know he’ll focus on making sure we make progress with our current strategic plan and that we’re pushing forward and making good progress on those priorities.

Everyone on our board has a different perspective and different point of view intentionally because we want diverse support to ensure that our governance is strong and represents different strengths and expertise. Mike brings his own unique experience. Volunteers of America is a unique LeadingAge member because it provides a range of aging services and more broadly human services.

Given that the field’s workforce has historically been more diverse than other sector’s, what is LeadingAge’s vision for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and the aging services sector?

LeadingAge has a strong commitment to addressing issues of racial injustice, equity and inclusion in our field and for older adults. Addressing these issues has been part of who LeadingAge is as an organization for a longtime. We’re apolitical and really steadfast in building an equitable and inclusive sector.

As we lay out in our Strategic Plan 2021-23, we’re doing a lot of work to strengthen our members’ acumen around DEI issues. We’re working on developing a diverse pipeline for aging services and specifically for the sector’s leadership. The care workforce has historically been black and brown and particularly comprised of women. But the sector’s leadership has been less diverse. So we’re working on initiatives that include a summer enrichment intern program for students. We want to make sure that equity in our sector isn’t just about workers who historically have been people of color, but we also want to make sure equity exists at the executive level.

We’ve also been conducting original research and talking to current leaders of color to better understand the issues related to DEI in the field and to assess that what we’re doing now will ensure that we make a meaningful difference moving forward.

Could you talk about how professionalizing the caregiving workforce will also help to make the field more competitive as far as attracting workers?

Despite the incredible value that direct care professionals bring to older adults and our society, they are simply not valued by our health care system. Care givers traditionally don’t earn high wages, often receive inadequate benefits and have tough working conditions. In many cases, they’re doing extremely labor-intensive jobs. At LeadingAge, we know that professional care givers are at the heart of aging services. Older adults can’t receive the care they need without direct care workers. LeadingAge is trying to imagine what our workforce would look like if we could create the support that would make it more appealing to work in our sector.

We want to provide workers with high-quality, competency-based training and to think about wages that are commensurate with competency levels as well as skilled supervision and good working conditions. We should also think about career pathways and career advancement. This will lead to better jobs and a stronger workforce across the board.




Gary Jones, Heather Tussing, Olivia Beaton, Gary Jones, and Scott Smith

Technology in Senior Living: Adapting & Powering the Industry Forward

The senior living industry and technology have not always gone hand and hand, however COVID-19 forced the industry to adapt into the 21st century and inspire meaningful change. The panel at Healthtac West, Technology in Senior Living: Adapting & Powering the Industry Forward, featured, Heather Tussing, Executive Vice President at Morning Pointe Senior Living, Scott Smith, National Director of Resident Programming at Five Star Senior Living, Rob Day, Director of Sales for G5, and Gary Jones, General Manager of Customer Experience at VCPI.

Smith starts off by sharing that “there were two things that people cared about during the pandemic: connecting and safety.” He says that all the technology that Five Star implemented were majorly trying to tackle those two things. For Tussing, “the pandemic really showed me that I need to be able to communicate with families personally throughout all of our communities, so we implemented technology that allowed me to do that.” For loved ones, the unknown was scarier than the reality, and the transparency and communication that came from the pandemic are surely here to stay, as resident well-being is everyone’s number one priority.

So, what is technologies role as we move into a post pandemic world? Jones believes that telehealth is something that is here to stay, however it is crucial that communities have the infrastructure to meet the technological demand. Tussing notes that for some residents, telehealth has become a better opportunity for them to get the care they need without having to leave their community, especially memory care residents. Smith agrees, and says when buildings didn’t have the proper foundation, it left teams scrambling to find ways to connect residents with the outside world. Moving forward, Smith says the goal is “how can we make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

As Day notes, it is no secret that “senior living is behind other industries from a technology standpoint,” however, he goes on to say that “there have been more tech companies that are seeing opportunities in this space.” Smith brings up an important point, saying that not only does the technology need to be in place and available, but the proper tools and training need to be provided to staff to onboard them properly. There is no use for technology if it is not making the lives of the staff easier, which is why investing time and money in assuring team members are digesting the implemented technology is crucial. “I believe the biggest gap in technology in senior living right now is automation.” And he hopes that as the industry growths with time, it will be able to adapt into a more automated environment.

As the industry moves forward, Day discusses that the residents’ relationships with technology are going to change as well. Residents now are at an age where they have not had relationships with technology their whole lives, but soon that will no longer be the case. It will be interesting to see how the industry evolves along with the next generation of residents. Smith hopes that this shift will make day to day operations smoother.

Looking into the future there are big hopes for how technology will shape the future of senior living. Jones comments, “infrastructure is something operators need to continue to invest in and update on a regular 3–5-year basis.” Technology is changing, and senior living needs to be able to leverage the best possible practices for their staff and residents. Tussing adds on “communities can either embrace and adapt to technology, or they are going to be left behind because there is no other option.” However, as a leader, she stresses that this change cannot and will not take place over night, and the goal is to adapt at a pace that is palatable for teams and communities. She says, “while we have to move forward, we must move forward with empathy.” Smith brings up an important point, and while he is on board for all these technology advancements, he hopes that at the core, the industry doesn’t stray away from the heart behind senior living, “everything we do is still about relationships.”

Shannon Watson, David Sawyer, Olivia Beaton, Christy Van Der Westhuizen, and Stephanie Haley-Andrews

What’s Next? A Look into the Future of Senior Living

The last 18 months have been extremely challenging for the senior living industry, but the leaders on this panel are ready to move onward and upward as they prepare to meet the bottled-up demand of seniors ready to make the move to their communities. Stephanie Haley-Andrews, SVP of Resident Care, Spectrum Retirement Communities, Shannon Watson, President / CEO at Baptist Retirement Communities of Georgia, Christy Van Der Westhuizen, Director of Sales & Marketing at MBK Senior Living, and David Sawyer, CEO / Founder of TSO Life, come together to discuss what is next for the industry.

Change is a word that took on a new meaning to operators during the pandemic, and the panelists discussed what changes are here to stay, and what changes may no longer be necessary. Van Der Westhuizen notes that all the rapidly changing information and demands instilled “the need to communicate quickly, and with a sense of transparency,” and she believes that is a positive change that will continue to be important moving forward. Her communities at MBK took to video to be transparent with their residents, team members, and families, by sending weekly “what’s good in the community” notes to keep a sense of honesty and joy even during challenging times.

Watson believes that COVID-19 has moved seniors and senior housing to the forefront of the public’s minds, which creates a unique opportunity for growth, change, and education. She discusses how the isolation many seniors at home experienced during the pandemic has created a shift and a desire to move into a community where they can find connections.

Sawyer, being on the technology side of the industry, states that in the future, senior living needs to step up its integration game by “having data flow more freely between systems and creating a seamless experience for the operator.” He encourages technology vendors to focus on integrating much better, to which Haley-Andrews agrees that less redundancy would ease day to day operations within communities.

Occupancy is the buzzword on everyone’s minds in the industry right now, and the good news is, the panelists agree the demand for senior living is back and may even grow bigger than before.  Van Der Westhuizen says, “occupancy is rebounding a lot faster than we anticipated,” and she contributes that to her team doing the hard work when it was easy not to. The relationships that her sales teams built during COVID-19 have been crucial in bringing new residents into their communities. Sawyer adds that as a collective, we have to “make senior living a want instead of a need.”

From a marketing standpoint, all the panelists agree the key to getting new faces in the doors is showing the reality of what life is like within their communities. Watson, “if you can show people content of residents who actually live in your communities and not just stock photos, that makes the difference.” Sawyer adds on to that, and notes that senior living needs to market themselves as a place people want to live as well as cater to the changing trends and desires of the potential new residents. He challenges operators to look at their engagement calendars and question if this is a place they would want to come spend time, and if the answer is no, to start reflecting on ways to change that experience.

As far as what is next and what they want to see in the future, Watson also believes in the power of more intergenerational connections and opportunities within the industry, as seniors have so much to offer younger generations, and vice versa. Haley-Andrews and her communities are focusing on a holistic approach to care, “and providing evidence-based practice and care to show better outcomes.” As a former Disney cast member, Van Der Westhuizen is all about “experience based senior living,” and she hopes one day to own communities that do just that, provide an exceptional experience and quality of life to the residents.  Wherever the future of senior living takes the industry, it is no doubt that with leaders like these at the helm, there is nowhere to go but up.

Tshane Bell, Mindy Cheek, Mandy Curtis, Stephanie Parks, Hank Watson, and Olivia Beaton

Skilled Nursing 101: A Different Kind of Care

Skilled Nursing Facilities are a large part of the senior living industry yet are often ignored or misunderstood. This group of SNF leaders came together to debunk some myths and provide education on the importance of skilled nursing. The panel was comprised of, Tshane Bell, Director of Strategic Operations at Cascadia Healthcare, Mindy Cheek, Senior Vice President at Greystone Communities, Mandy Curtis, Senior Vice President of Health Services at Oakmont Management Group, Stephanie Parks, Chief Development Officer at Reliant Rehab, and Hank Watson, Chief Development Officer from American Health Partners.

Bell states that SNF differs from senior housing strongly due to the regulatory environment that they are in, the skilled realm is heavily regulated by CMS across the country. Before they were regulated, SNF didn’t necessarily have great outcomes, which is where many of the false perceptions about nursing homes came to be. “When I first got into skilled nursing over two decades ago, we were taking the residents that other senior living models are taking now, now skilled nursing has become more of that short term rehab, but the acuity we take is what hospital systems used to take.”

Watson adds, “Part of what the nursing home industry needs to own in a positive way is that about two-thirds of the people in our beds are not long-term care eligible, there are millions of people that need 24/7 nursing care, and we can provide that and do it for a lower cost. That is a really critical piece to be proud of and is unique to nursing homes.” Curtis brought up an important point, that “at some point, it’s important for other types of senior housing to be honest and say we cannot provide certain types of care that a skilled nursing facility is able to.”

Parks and Curtis agree that one of their favorite parts of being in skilled nursing is being able to see the progression of residents as their needs change throughout their journey. Though skilled nursing has made tremendous strides over the last few decade, Cheek notes that “there is always an opportunity to improve the level of care we are providing.” And as these panelists engaged in their dialogue, it’s clear that change and raising the level of quality care is always in the forefront of their minds.

Parks believes there is a moment in time for SNF, and the idea that it is the last step for end-of-life care is not the case, so rewriting that narrative is important to assure that individuals who could benefit from skilled nursing aren’t discouraged. Watson offers a way to achieve this and encourages those in skilled nursing to “take ownership from a clinical perspective of your residents. As an industry, we must invest in the resources for our residents. We can set the model of care and take a leadership stance instead of being at the bottom of the food chain.”

All the panelists agree that quality outcomes are extremely important in skilled nursing, as Bell says, “this gives us the opportunity to show people who we are and what we are about.” To get people in the door, Cheek believes in the powers of testimonials and stresses the importance of using positive resident or family feedback to prove the fantastic role skilled nursing can have in an older adult’s life. “People are scared to make that move, but when they hear other positive experiences, it helps eliminate that fear.” Parks agrees with her fellow panelists, and she adds “it is the least expensive location to get the highest level of care.” Quality outcomes and the resident experience are the two most important things to advocate for and it is up to leaders within the industry to educate the public on the good of skilled nursing facilities.